'We can't imagine another summer like this one'

As concerts get canceled, promoters wonder how long they can hang on

Israeli concert and festival producers up in arms about lost income and lack of work due to the coronavirus

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Israelis from the culture and arts industry clash with police during a protest outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on June 15, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis from the culture and arts industry clash with police during a protest outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on June 15, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On July 14, some 6,000 people are supposed to be dancing in the aisles of Tel Aviv’s Expo, as Boston indie band The Pixies belt out crowd favorites.

The band hasn’t officially canceled yet, but assuming it does, due to the coronavirus pandemic, promoter Carmi Wurtman isn’t sure whether it’s worth planning ahead for next summer.

“We’re trying to reroute all tours, or generate new tours,” said Wurtman. “But we don’t know about next summer either.”

The virus has wreaked havoc in many industries, and some of them, such as tourism, event planning, restaurants and cafes, haven’t returned fully or at all. The spring and summer seasons are the peak of a concert promoter’s year, particularly in Israel, where outdoor events begin in May and extend through October.

“The peak for our industry is now and now we’re not active at all,” said Gil Karniel, a promoter who watched his entire season get canceled due to the coronavirus. “We don’t have permission to gather even hundreds of people, and the real difficulty is what will happen in the future and our ability to plan or reschedule.”

Gil Karniel, bottom right, at Shamans of Sounds festival at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in January 2020, one of the annual events he produces, and one of the last ones before the coronavirus (Courtesy Gil Karniel)

Both Wurtman and Karniel attended a demonstration on Monday at the Knesset that gathered some 5,000 people who work in the production industry, including promoters, artists, staging companies, sound and lighting workers, public relations professionals, event organizers and anyone else whose work involves organizing large staged events.

The demonstration, called The Soul or War, was gathered to protest the government’s lack of attention to their industry.

“For some reason, arts is not seen as necessary as bread and butter,” said Wurtman. “Without culture, what’s it all worth?”

Some 5,000 Israelis from the culture and arts industry protested outside the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem, calling for financial support from the Israeli government on June 15, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Another promoter, Kohra Yuval Itach, who organizes seven to eight alternative festivals a year from yoga to dance and world music, said he was nearly arrested at the protest.

“We needed to make some noise,” said Itach. “They don’t let us do events and they don’t give us money. How many businesses around events and culture are dying? There are almost 200,000 people in Israel working in the events and culture industry and we need some money.”

Wurtman describes himself as a bridge between the bigger and smaller local promoters, adding that the bigger production companies would probably be the ones sitting with government officials to ask for aid to the industry.

He said that several private promoters brought a joint action suit against the National Insurance Institute, Israel’s social security organization, which has given emergency funding to some private contractors in various industries. He wasn’t expecting them to succeed.

“The music industry always gets passed over every time there’s an emergency, whether it’s war with Lebanon or Gaza or this,” he said. “A month or two of unrest we can handle. But this is different.”

Event entrepreneur Kohra Yuval Itach (right) at the Imagine Festival, held in March 2020, his last event before the coronavirus (Courtesy Kohra Yuval Itach)

Shuki Weiss, one of Israel’s largest promoters, whose summer bill included he Red Hot Chili Peppers, Celine Dion and Morrissey, wrote a few weeks ago that his staff — with many on furlough — was in “a spiral” to reschedule tour dates, working with the complicated logistics of artists, countries, cities, staffs and equipment.

“I feel that every accomplishment in this period is a big success,” wrote Weiss. “We’re succeeding slowly to build a new year of events for 2021.”

The industry is planning to protest more, and Wurtman said he appreciated that ability.

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“Culture is seriously hurting here,” he said. “Imagine a life without music, it’s not a life we want to live. We’re going to see more and more people going belly up and these are people working for twenty or thirty years in this industry.  I’ll be okay, but all my staff, my suppliers, who would jump through hoops for me, I’m worried about them. Artists aren’t always full of fame and glory; I know some who are back home with their parents.”

Wurtman has been working as a promoter for the last 19 years, producing university student day festivals, bringing in performers from abroad, planning a five-week expo of technology and entertainment in Tel Aviv this summer, and promoting various performers, including America, Joe Cocker, Macy Gray, Ziggy Marley, Joss Stone and Jason Derolo over the last few years.

If he makes money on 12 or 13 events every year that each cost about NIS 1 million to produce, “it evens out,” said Wurtman. “Now, however, it’s hard to know what to plan. It isn’t necessarily worth it to plan events for 250 or 500 people, and even if tours are rerouted, no one knows what will happen next summer.”

Carmi Wurtman (right) at the 2018 Sunbeat Festival in Ashram BaNegev (Courtesy Carmi Wurtman)

Itach, who organizes smaller events that are more like alternative conventions with about 1,500 attendees, agreed, noting that if “there’s fewer people, than there’s less profit.”

“The break-even is often selling 80% of the seats and if we’re not allowed to sell all of the seats because of corona, we won’t make money,” said Itach, who is looking into creating online versions of his events, which often include performance and speakers.  “If they only allow events of 500 people, that’s not really bringing back the industry.”

Karniel, who works with a wide variety of world music artists and indie musicians, and has produced festivals including Mekudeshet and Sunbeat, is also working on rescheduling events for next year, but it’s clear that no one knows what will be happening then, either.

It’s possible to squeeze though this season, said Karniel and Wurtman, but not another one.

“I won’t work as a supermarket delivery boy. I prefer to take a loan from the bank,” said Wurtman. For now, he’s doing location scouting for next year, even though every meeting ends with everyone saying they don’t even know if the events will happen.

“My assumption of work is that the coronavirus will either disappear or they’ll find a vaccine but that we’ll go back to working in 2021,” said Karniel. “We’re making that assumption because we can’t imagine another summer that will go by like this one. That’s a death penalty for us.”

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